John knew from the moment he figured what sex was that he looked at men the same way he did women. He knew that it was a sin, unnatural, knew that from the sermons the orphanage had made him sit through, knew that from the men he saw hanged for it. If he ran with anyone other than Dutch, it might’ve been a problem.
He was fifteen when he finally said it to anyone besides himself, and it was, like all things, predicated by a fight.
They’d been further west then, working in some small town John couldn’t remember the name of. He couldn’t remember the con they were working either, nor what he, Arthur, and Dutch were doing at the time, but he could remember the look on the farm boy’s face when he and John realized simultaneously that John had been eyeing the skin that showed where his shirt was unbuttoned much too long to be proper. Burned in his brain was the tone of the boy’s voice as he hissed, “What d’you think you’re lookin’ at, invert?” and John was on him near instantly.
All things considered, it was a pretty uneven fight. Sure, the farm boy was older and bigger than John, but John had caught him off guard and the boy obviously didn’t have as much experience as John did brawling it out with someone who wanted to kill him.
Arthur’d been the one to pull them apart, to yank John back by his collar because, even at fifteen, John was still gangly enough to be manhandled. And Dutch didn’t say anything at first, let the other boy run when Arthur gave him a threatening look, just eyed John up and down and said, slowly, in an almost pleased tone, “…Well.” It was the kind of thing that indicated there was a talk coming, and Dutch loved to talk above all else.
Later, back at camp, he’d been called over to Dutch’s tent, confronted with both Dutch and Hosea standing at the entrance, waiting for him. That too, John could remember clearly, Dutch with his hands on his hips, Hosea with his arms folded, and the cold fear in the pit of John’s stomach. The fear that, after everything, after every part of his past life he’d confessed to them, that wanting a man in bed would be the thing that made them throw him out. Whether he believed they would really do it was irrelevant. It was the idea that they could that scared him.
Dutch’s voice had been firm, close to scolding when he’d said, “You wanna explain to me and Hosea what happened in town today?”
And John had bitten his lip, but looked up at Dutch all the same. “Kid called me inverted.”
“And why, pray tell, did that make you upset enough to risk blowing our cover? I know you’ve been called worse, John, hell, I think Arthur called you worse just this morning.”
And John, the threat of being kicked out still hanging over his head, had stuck out his chin defiantly, the way he’d always done to protect himself, said, “He weren’t wrong.”
“Like men, do you?”
And there’d been no point in not being honest, despite the tremble in his voice. “Same as women.”
“Well, son,” Dutch had said, his eyes glimmering, “have I ever told you my thoughts on inverts?”
Dutch had then broken into some long, winding speech, one that started directed at John, but eventually became towards the whole camp because that was Dutch’s way. John didn’t remember most of it now, mostly because he hadn’t understood the majority of what Dutch was saying at the time. Something about ancient peoples and native peoples and love above all else and, as always, the scourge that was civilization. Normal Dutch stuff.
Whole thing left John feeling winded and exhausted, but he at least got the point: that Dutch thought society’s views on sex were just as antiquated as their views on near everything else and John wasn’t going to be kicked out for bedding a willing partner, no matter if that partner was a man or a woman, nor if that partner had white skin or black (though, of course, John’d later learned as the camp grew that not being kicked out didn’t mean other camp members, ones that joined later, weren’t allowed to show their distaste with the whole idea). It somehow was both a relief and not at all comforting in the slightest, because that too was Dutch’s way.
And just as Dutch approached everything with a speech on the morals of the situation, Hosea was one to give John the actual, practical advice. When he called John out of camp to fish with him, a thin veil over an incoming conversation, John was never afraid about what was going to happen. Out of everyone in camp, he trusted Hosea maybe the most not to turn him out or hurt him for whom he wanted to sleep with. Hosea was tough, the one to come after anyone not pulling their weight, but he was fair. If he had even half a mind to turn John out, it would’ve happened back when he was called over to Dutch’s tent in the first place. That said, it didn’t mean he particularly wanted to have a conversation with Hosea of all folks about fucking and being fucked, and he’d agreed only under extreme protest.
Luckily for him, the conversation ended up being more Hosea talking at him, rather than John being expected to respond. His tone was stern, but seemingly more to get John to listen close than anything else. First, Hosea had explained, wait to fool around until he was older and, if he really had to, find boys his own age. Any grown man that looked at a teenage boy that way was either desperate or messed in the head, and either meant he was more likely to try to hurt John and that wasn’t worth the risk. And, no matter how desperate he got, stay away from children, because that was one thing Dutch and Hosea both would never abide.
Next, expect any man trying to get him out behind a bar or alone in a hotel room was planning to kill him. If he didn’t, fine, it would be a pleasant surprise, but expect him to try, no matter if he was using the language of inverts to rob or beat John or if he did genuinely want get John alone to fuck first. Be especially wary of men who wanted to get off first or to take John rather than be taken. Keep his guns on him until the last possible second, and keep a knife in reach at all times.
Lastly, he was responsible for any trouble his lack of discretion might cause, just like he might be any other kind of trouble. He ever got arrested for it, sure, Hosea would come for him, break him out of wherever, just like they would for any other gang member. But if he went for the wrong man, caused some sort of uproar, and it compromised whatever job the gang was working on at the time, that was on John, same as it’d be if he’d shot the wrong man or even went for the wrong lady, and he’d be expected to face any consequences for the loss.
And, in the meantime, John ought to control where his eyes wandered.
John waited to fool around with other boys until he was sixteen, and then he was near desperate for it. And he had then, of course, ended up beaten several times by boys he’d misjudged, largely because he couldn’t figure out how the hell one went about actually indicating his inclinations in a way that was subtle. It wasn’t easy, learning the ropes of anything illegal, but something as intimate as bedding on top of it? John’d ended up paying for what he didn’t know with fists.
John hadn’t known, at the time, that Arthur’s thoughts ran the same as his did, that Arthur liked men just as well as he liked women, but maybe he should’ve guessed. There were signs—the way Dutch and Hosea already seemed practiced in talking about unnatural inclinations, or the way Arthur had seemed entirely disinterested back when Dutch gave his speech to John, like he’d heard the whole thing before—but not enough to make the connection until Arthur himself had provided more information.
It seemed John earned Arthur’s pity well enough once he’d been worked over for the third time that Arthur decided to extend him a hand—or, maybe more likely, had been talked into it by Hosea. John had been sitting at the fire in camp nursing a blacked eye and a blacker mood when Arthur took a seat next to him, unceremoniously deposited a book in John’s lap, and said, impromptu of nothing, “Whitman.”
John had eyed the front cover of the book, then looked up at Arthur and spat, “What?”
“Gotta find a better way to go about this, Marston.” Arthur tapped the cover. “Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass.”
“I don’t know why the hell you expect me to—”
“Whitman,” Arthur interrupted, “is a poet, and ain’t a particularly interestin' one at that. But he’s a friend to folks like us. If you wanna stop showin' up here beat to shit, oughta familiarize yourself with his work. And keep a goddamn knife on you.”
“Hosea told me that already,” John had snapped, unable to keep the frustrated whine out of his voice.
John didn’t have any clue what Arthur meant with the book and he couldn’t even get through a few lines of poetry before wanting to chuck it across the campsite (which he did, several times). Then, one day a few months later, he’d met a boy his age who gave the same long looks to men and hadn’t learnt yet to quell them, who had a soft face and nice hands, and who, after talking with John for a bit, brought up the subject of poetry. John mentioned Whitman on a whim, and not long later he and the boy were having relations in a barn.
That was how John realized it was a code. Folks like us, Arthur’d said.
Dutch the philosophy, Hosea the practicality, Arthur the method.
John had already known, at that point, that he liked looking at Arthur. Of course he had—by both John’s own judgment and the way women reacted to Arthur, Arthur was nice to look at. And this was when Arthur was still twenty-three and seemed near invincible, and it was only logical that John’s admiration of Arthur would fall both with his skills and also his looks.
Plus, there was no harm in looking at Arthur, far as John could tell, because the man didn’t notice and, even if he did, most he’d probably do was just cuff John on the back of the head. When looking too much could get him killed with any men outside of camp, paying particular attention when Arthur took his shirt off was safe in comparison.
But something about knowing it was safer than he’d even thought before, that Arthur knew how it was to like men, pushed it into something more than looking, turned it into wanting. That summer he was sixteen John no longer knew if he followed Arthur around because he idolized him or because he was young and dumb and horny and wanted desperately to touch boys or girls who might touch him back, didn’t know if he wanted to be like Arthur or if he wanted to be with him.
He’d try to find excuses to follow Arthur into town, on hunting trips, and especially down to the river to bathe. Anything to spend more time around the man, and it was likely only the fact that John’d always followed Arthur around near as much as Copper did that saved John, kept Arthur from noticing something was going on. Of course, to the more observant members of the camp it had been painfully obvious—this time it was both Dutch and Hosea who’d sat him down over fishing and that whole ordeal was something John’d never wanted to repeat.
Thing was, it never lead to anything. Of course it wasn’t ever going to, Arthur seven years older than him and John just a kid. Even if John’d managed to confess it, Arthur wouldn’t believe him, and even if Arthur believed him he wouldn’t agree to it, not when John was still sixteen and Arthur treated him even younger than that, and even if John wasn’t sixteen and was instead twenty-three like Arthur, he still doubted the man would give him the time of day.
But still, for about a year, John wanted.
It wasn’t any sort of event that made him drop the wanting, just time. Eventually, once it went on long enough and John was finding other folks that would actually return his affection, he’d stopped thinking so much about Arthur.
And for ages John had thought it was just that, something quick and bright, something based in discovering someone he knew was like him, and something that faded just as quick. It wasn’t like Arthur was the only one he’d seen his affections grow and fade for as the years went on—there was a very pretty waitress when he was seventeen that John had near mourned when the gang had moved on to the next town, and a striking farrier’s apprentice when he was eighteen that John had almost talked back to camp to be a more permanent horse caretaker. Both he’d wanted around because he liked bedding them, and maybe that was the problem, that as a teenager love still felt like a foreign idea.
And then he was older, busier, grew out of some habits and some thoughts, and conversely thought less about sex all together and more about pulling his own weight, and any previous attraction to Arthur slipped to the back of his mind completely. And then Abigail came along and all John had on his mind was her, all of her, and then everything became a mess by John’s own fault and he’d mostly forgotten the rough sort of attraction that had felt so pressing as a teenager.
He never talked to Arthur about it. Ended being embarrassing more than anything else, idea that he had anything beyond familial feelings for the man he referred to as his brother. Even thinking back on it made him mortified, made him want to stick his head in the nearest water barrel.
Apparently, though, that burn of embarrassment hadn’t taught him any sort of lesson, because here he’d ended up, in a situation similar but different. John was a fool, and he kept making the same sort of mistakes, just transposed enough that they were different enough to be called new.
When John’d wanted Arthur when he was young, it was about something physical, about looking, about wanting to touch because he hadn’t ever really touched a man. It was far from romantic, because honestly John’d thought back then that any sort of romantic love was mostly exaggerated for the sappy romance novels shops sold to young girls. It wasn’t until Abigail that he’d started to feel differently, and, even then, he’d slept with her first.
John did know that romantic love existed now. He’d thought he might love Abigail first when he wanted to lie next to her whether or not they had sex. He’d just wanted to be with her, to feel the way his body fit next to her, to hear her breathe and know she’d chosen to stay with him out of all the other men in camp.
John knew he loved her when the sight of her started making him weak-kneed, when even thinking about her made him giddy, when he wanted to make her smile or get exasperated and hit him or laugh. It was puppy love, sure, the kind of love that didn’t last, that hadn’t lasted long past Jack, but John delighted in it all the same.
And then, later, after the mess and after the year away, he knew he loved Abigail in that true sort of way because despite how much they argued, despite the screaming matches and the long stretches apart and how she’d hated him despite loving him after he’d come back, he felt like a piece of him was missing when she wasn’t with him. And he both despised and treasured that love.
Whatever this was with Arthur, it wasn’t that. Whatever he felt for Arthur, it terrified John.
With Arthur it was desperate, like the world would come crashing down if Arthur left it. It was what Abigail warned him about back when Arthur was dying, though John doubted she’d thought it was ever this bad. It was wanting again, but not even having a definable way of wanting the way he had when he was a teenager and the only thing on his mind was bedding folks.
No, it was wanting to hear Arthur laugh and wanting to press him back into a kiss and to see the way his eyes got soft when he looked at Jack and to thread his fingers through his hair and to share cigarettes and to get into half-serious wrestling matches again and to trace a thumb over the scarring hole where the bullet punched through him and to mourn well and true the things and the people they’d lost and to live new lives together and to become better people together and to figure out what the hell their life would be like without Dutch in it.
It was strange and messy and all of those things and none of them. It was love, but it wasn’t. It was knowing what he almost lost and not wanting it taken away again. It wasn’t healthy.
John was a goddamn mess.
He told no one. Not Arthur, in that hour before 1899 became 1900, and not anyone else as the hours turned into days and days into weeks. Not anyone as winter set in full and the snow got deeper and life on the farm became near suffocating.
Of course John couldn’t talk to Arthur, for all the obvious reasons and just that talking with Arthur in any real capacity was still new and awkward and fragile. But Abigail was also out. Though she’d guessed pretty quick at what John was back when they were first fooling around and had done no more at the time than make some joke about finally finding something they had in common beyond picking pockets, there was a difference between knowing the man you were with had fooled around with men in the past and the same man wanting one now. And, though he and Abigail hadn’t been strictly exclusive at all times in their past, he couldn’t imagine her image of a cozy little family living simple on a ranch included her husband with some sort of second relationship.
If that was something John even wanted, which he sure as hell couldn’t say.
Tilly, Sadie, Charles—though John knew Tilly didn’t care about things like John’s particular flavor of unnatural inclinations and he suspected Sadie or Charles wouldn’t either, there was no room to discuss any of it. They lived nearly on top of each other on Pineridge, and though John had been used to living in a camp with absolutely no privacy for years, something about the snow and the walls and the lack of anything beyond farm work to do made John restless, uneasy. Even if he wanted to tell one of them, the risk of it turning into a bigger mess than it already was was too much to bear. And John didn’t want to tell them, because the idea of something changing, of even one of them looking at him with pity for the mess he was in, felt unbearable.
So, John did what he did with every other problem in his life and elected to ignore it as long as he could.
Life on the ranch went on. Abigail pulled the stitches out of John’s shoulder, then Arthur’s stomach. Arthur eased into farm work and more snow fell and the nights were cold and dark and John tried not to think about anything involving love or the future or Arthur, because if he didn’t think it then it wouldn’t come spilling out of his mouth. With everything that needed doing, it was easy enough.
Sometime in February, everyone on the farm was woken around five in the morning by an almighty crack. Not long after, as John was still stumbling around the bedroom trying to get his bearings, a pounding came on the door of the bunkhouse. By the time John’s feet managed to get him out into the main room, Charles had already opened the door to Abe’s son, Walt, standing on the doorstep, frantic.
“Tree came down on the fence and the flock got spooked.” The words were breathless, Walt like he’d gotten to them as fast as the snowy ground let him. “Need everyone we can to bring them back in. Pa says best bring rifles.”
There wasn’t time for much beyond dressing and grabbing what they needed. “Thought pines weren’t supposed to come down with the snow,” John said into the bedroom as he tugged on his boots, and was summarily ignored by both Arthur and Abigail, the former dressing rapidly for the cold weather, the latter calming a fussy Jack.
John grabbed his gun belt along with his rifle on his way out the door.
It had been snowing all the previous day. Now, John discovered, the skies were clear but the storm had turned to wind. Made John glad for the heavy knit hats May had lent all of them when she’d realized they were woefully underprepared for long-term cold weather. As much as John wanted to wear Arthur’s hat now he’d okayed it, the leather was made for sun, not cold.
It wasn’t until John was halfway over to the barn where the horses were that the cold had cut through the fog in his mind—almost as good as coffee in that regard—and it was only then that he realized that just how deep the snow was. Up to his knees, a haul to push through, and he automatically found his eyes drifting over to Arthur who was, like John maybe should’ve expected, walking like nothing was different. A lingering limp, sure, even after he’d abandoned the cane, but otherwise walking like there wasn’t two feet of snow on the ground, no more fazed than Charles and Sadie were, a few paces ahead of him and John.
Still, John couldn’t help the concern bubbling up in his stomach, and he half-wondered if this was what the rest of their lives would be like, if seeing Arthur so close to death had broken something inside of him. Arthur wasn’t back to how he was before Dutch shot him, maybe never would be, but after three months of healing he was fine enough for work, fine enough to track down some sheep that had gotten loose from their pens. And yet here John was, worrying after him once again.
Even with the hat, by the time they’d reached the barn John had already yanked his scarf up over his face. The cold made his face tight, made the scars pull against his skin. It was the kind of biting chill that made him think back on the wolf attack, on the first time he and Arthur’d ended up on a mountain with one of them dying. Back when Arthur saved him, because Arthur’d always been the one to pull him out of trouble by the collar of his shirt. John didn’t know when he’d gotten so goddamn sentimental.
They’d brought the horses in when the snow first started falling the previous morning. Though the barn didn’t have enough space to stall all of them, the herd was adjusted enough at this point that they’d left most of them loose in the barn, stalling only the more troublesome individuals—Buell, of course, announced his displeasure by kicking the wood wall as soon as he heard the barn door roll open.
“Sorry boy, not yet,” Arthur murmured over to the horse, and John had to fight hard against rolling his eyes as he gathered Rachel’s saddle. Arthur claimed to be making progress with the stallion, but so far the most of what that looked like was a hell of a lot of coddling from Arthur, and very little visible improvement to John’s eyes.
This time, though, maybe Buell had a right to be restless. John didn’t know if it was the noise of the tree falling or the ongoing wind, but even Rachel, calm and easy almost to a fault, gave a snort as John approached her, tossed her head as he heaved the saddle over her back. It was almost unnerving, like a portent that something wasn’t right.
Abe met them just outside the barn, one of the ranch’s horses in hand. Robert, Nic, and Walt had joined them in tacking, and so, as they mounted up, they were a total of eight riders.
“Thank you all, for waking this early,” Abe said as they rode out towards the break in the fence. “I promise you, once we find my sheep, there’s going to be one hell of a breakfast waiting when we get back.”
As they got closer, John got a better view of the tree that came down. It was, indeed, a pine, one of the many that formed a half-natural, half-shaped windbreak that sheltered the farm from the gusts that came off the plains. Must’ve been the same wind that snapped it, and, because the fence was partially barbed wire, a good portion beyond the tree tore down when it fell.
“We’re missing around half the flock, as far as my estimate.” They were almost upon where the fence was down, and Abe gestured out towards the paddock. “Got the rest secured in the run-in. My worry is, the sheep usually like to stick together. If they split…” He paused, glanced back at the rest of them. “If the flock split, either they were spooked enough by the tree falling, or—you all brought rifles? Winter makes some animals desperate.”
They were at the torn-down fence now, where trampled down snow indicated where the sheep had crossed the fence. Not enough wind cut through the windbreak to completely hide the tracks but, it became clear as they followed them out to the edge of the trees, that wasn’t the case on the more open plains. Any trace of tamped snow had disappeared near completely.
“Alright,” Abe said, wheeling his horse to the side so he could look at them. The wind was louder out here, but not quite to the voice-drowning level. “I’m going to split us up, better chance of finding them. Robert, you and Sadie head down towards the south end of the creek where we graze them. Nic, bring Charles up towards Split Jaw. John, Arthur, head straight out from here. I know you aren’t as familiar with the land, but you should be fine heading straight. If on the off-chance not, fire a shot up and one of us can come find you. Walt and I are going to head along the tree line and then up towards the ridge, see if they ducked back into the trees. Anyone finds the flock, make some noise so the rest of us can come to you. Can’t bring the dogs out when the snow’s this high, so we’re going to need multiple riders to herd them, especially if they’re spooked. You don’t find them within a half hour or so, turn back and we’ll try again when it’s light. Ain’t worth killing ourselves or the horses over. Okay?” At their nods, Abe nodded his head once. “Okay. Good luck.”
The snow was still soft, no crust on it yet, and that was a good and a bad thing. On one hand, less risk to the horses, not having to punch through a hard crust and risk scrapes and scratches to their legs. On the other, the wind had caused drifts, meaning they were plowing through unpredictable amounts of snow with no real trail to follow. Rachel was lifting her legs high on each step, trying to cut through the powder, and Gwydion over with Arthur was having a similar experience.
With the clear sky and a nearly full moon, they did at least have decent visibility when the wind didn’t kick up too much snow. Only one lantern between them, the one Arthur held low, trying to catch shadows where the wind might not have completely blown over any tracks. As far as John could tell, he wasn’t having much luck.
And it was freezing. John’d dressed warm, sure, but even then he could feel the wind cutting through the thinnest layers of his clothing, catching at his skin. He and Arthur kept the horses close together, both good-natured enough not to mind, and that blocked the wind some, but not enough. This was the coldest time of night, an hour or two before dawn, and it felt it.
Finally, when the hiss of the windblown snow and the muffled thumps of the horses’ hooves became too much, John took an opportunity when the wind wasn’t drowning everything to say to Arthur, loud over how the scarf muffled his voice, “Think we’re gonna find them?”
Arthur sighed loud enough that John could hear it, yanked down the scarf over his face. “John, you thought we should help folks. Don’t know how much closer you’re gonna get than trackin’ down some sheep after a blizzard before the sun’s even up.”
“What, are you complainin’? Thought you were about makin’ up charity to folks now.”
“Me? I ain’t the one what wants to go back home after bein’ out five whole minutes.”
“Ain’t sayin’ I wanna go back, just sayin’…” John waved a hand, hoped that communicated what he meant. Seemed a fool’s errand trying to find sheep in the snow after their tracks got blown over. Also didn’t help that the sheep grew white wool, though at least they were dark-faced.
Arthur shook his head. “Ain’t a cold weather creature, are you?”
“Think I got a right after nearly bleedin’ to death in the snow.”
“Fair ‘nough.” Arthur shifted in his saddle, straightened up a touch to see over the next snowdrift.
John did the same, seeing, unsurprisingly, nothing. Settled back in his saddle, ran a hand over Rachel’s neck. There was snow stuck in her mane where the wind whipped it up, and he took a minute to knock what he could free. Glanced back at Arthur. “Your back okay?”
“Back” had become shorthand for the place the bullet had gone through Arthur, as, even though it was more than just his back that suffered lingering damage, it was easier to say in casual conversation than something like “torso” or “abdomen”. The question was half actual curiosity, half bait for an argument, as an argument would at least keep them warm. But Arthur didn’t take it, just shrugged. “Fine. More stiff than anythin’ else.”
“Naw. Rollin’ outta bed to come out here ain’t done me any favors, but—ah.” Arthur lifted the lantern higher. “Well look here, Marston. Seems your luck held out.”
John followed Arthur’s gaze out to a dip in the ground, where, looking ruffled but alive, huddled Abe’s missing flock. Snow covering the curls of their wool where the wind had kicked it up, but the amount of steaming breath rising up around them at least confirmed they hadn’t frozen to death. “Seems it has,” John said, tapping his heels to Rachel’s side. “Can’t have even been ten minutes, that.”
But something was off. It became clear as they pushed the horses closer, close enough to get a good look at the ewes. They shied away as he and Arthur pulled up next to them, a couple snorting heavily, rolling eyes catching the light of the lantern. John wasn’t particularly familiar with sheep behavior, no more than what a few months at Pineridge had taught him, but he knew enough. Something had scared them.
“Why’re they spooked?” John asked, and, to the herd, “What’s got you spooked, ladies?” Even if the initial scare had been from the tree falling, it didn’t seem like they should still be this worked up.
Arthur didn’t answer him. When John looked back over at him, the man wasn’t looking at the flock. Instead his head was turned away, scanning over the lines of snowdrifts. Lantern held off to the side, eyes distant, searching.
And, suddenly, Arthur flinched violently, snapping his eyes away from the landscape, spinning towards the sheep.
“Arthur?” John asked, and he could hear concern creep into his own voice.
“Somethin’s wrong.” It was closer to a growl, and Arthur urged Gwydion forward, starting forward around the flock.
“What do you mean somethin’s wrong?” John jerked his eyes to where Arthur’s had been, scanning, seeing nothing. “What did you see?”
“Ain’t important, gotta see…” Arthur dipped the lantern down, looking more closely as he circled the herd, John following close behind.
“The hell you mean it ain’t important?”
“It ain’t important, John, what’s important—” The sound died in Arthur’s throat as the light swung over one of the sheep. He leaned further out of the saddle, pushed the lantern closer. “That’s blood.”
“Blood?” And John dismounted almost without thinking, leaned in close with Rachel’s reins in his hands. The ewe sidestepped away from him, shying further into the flock, but even then John could see the dark red splotches left in the snow, the shine against the black fur of her leg. “She’s hurt.”
“Can you see how bad?” Arthur asked, holding the lantern out to John.
John didn’t take it. “What’s out there?” He found his voice voice harder, more demanding. “Arthur, what did you see?”
“Goddamn nothin’, John, I just—just got a bad feelin’, just—how bad?”
John snatched the lantern from Arthur, passed him Rachel’s reins, and, despite how much he wanted to do otherwise, let it go. The ewe had stilled again, and John shushed her a few times as he knelt down in the snow, slowly grabbed her leg. When he brushed his gloved hand over the bloodied area she flinched, and it was the only sign of pain she’d betrayed to this point. John vaguely remembered Abe saying something about sheep not showing pain, but this was the first he’d seen it.
He gripped the leg in one hand, held the lantern over it with the other. With his thumb, John pushed the fur away from what looked like puncture wounds. He looked back at Arthur. “Think it’s a bite. Looks fresh, like the blood ain’t frozen yet.”
“Shit,” Arthur murmured as John straightened, grabbed Rachel’s reins from him. Arthur’s eyes had gone back out to the half-lit snow surrounding them.
“What’re you thinkin’?”
“Don’t think there’s much’ll go after a sheep in this kinda weather, ‘cept—” And suddenly Arthur froze, and this time when John followed his gaze out over the snow, he saw what Arthur was seeing—dark shapes, indistinct and blurry in the half-light of the moon off the snow.
Arthur gestured for the lantern, hefted it up when John passed it over to him. And something flickered in the darkness, the light of the lantern bouncing back against several sets of white-yellow eyes.
“John, get back on the horse,” Arthur said slowly, and John already had his foot in Rachel’s stirrup.
It was always goddamn wolves.
In some ways, this was better than back after Blackwater. John wasn’t shot through the leg, for one thing, and he wasn’t riding a horse as underfed and exhausted as he himself had been. He was warmer, better dressed, had a rifle on his back that was well maintained and loaded along with the gun on his belt. He wasn’t lost, had folks that would come looking if they heard gunshots, and Arthur was there.
In some ways it was worse, because Arthur was there.
By the time John had swung into the saddle, Arthur had his rifle up and the wolves had closed the distance. When the shot ran out the sheep spooked, and it was nothing but luck that they spooked in the right direction, off towards the ranch and away from the threat. There was a yelp and one of the wolves fell, but the rest kept on them, closed the gap. That was desperate behavior, the type you saw from starving animals, the dangerous kind.
And then John had his rifle in his hands and was firing too, only managing one shot before he had to wheel Rachel around, send her running too. He heard a noise like he might’ve hit his target, but there wasn’t even time to spare a glance to confirm.
John gave Rachel her head, had no choice but to, and couldn’t even turn to see what Arthur was doing, could just hear the gunfire from next to him. It was all John could do to stay mounted as he twisted in his saddle, fired, didn’t wait for the yelp before he fired again, and again, and the wolves were closer, closer, closer, on them—
When Rachel shied hard sideways, John didn’t blame her. Still, he thought he might’ve stuck in the saddle if the spook weren’t followed by a jump and a kick back at the wolves. Instead John felt himself tumbling, falling, scrabbling for the reins, the saddle horn, her mane, anything as a shout came from Arthur, as Rachel disappeared under him.
And then John hit the powder and all he could see was snow.